CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s slightly scary to realize that, at the end of this weekend’s matches and with European rugby set to kick off next week, a third of the 2013/2014 Top 14 season will be complete. History. Over. Done. Gone. Finito.
The big match of the weekend has to be Toulon v Clermont on Saturday. It’s a match that will – correctly if obviously and unnecessarily – be billed as a repeat of the 2013 European Cup final. If you recall, Clermont dominated the game in May but the title was won, thanks to the unerring boot of Lord Jonny of Wilkinson, by Toulon.
So, Clermont have a point to prove. Not that it will be easy. Not against Toulon at home. But now it has been confirmed that Clermont’s backs coach Franck Azema will take over from Vern Cotter at the end of the season, the visitors can now start to cast of the veil of uncertainty that has plagued their season so far.
And Toulon won’t be at home, either. Someone, somewhere, decided that the cosy confines of their 15,400-capacity Stade Mayol could not contain this clash of the Top 14 Titans – so it has been moved up the coast to Nice’s new 35,000-capacity Allianz Riviera, which was built for soccer’s Euro 2016 tournament, only opened its doors in September and looks like a beached jellyfish.
It might not be quite enough for them to condemn Toulon to a second defeat in two games, but this has all the makings of a tense affair.
The final weekend of Top 14 rugby before the European break starts on Friday evening, as Biarritz, already nine points adrift of Bayonne at the bottom of the table, meet Perpignan at Parc des Sports Aguilera.
The hosts have only won once this season, way back in the second week when they were at home to Montpellier, and just a week after they gave Clermont a run for their money. But a season that started surprisingly well has since gone terribly, horribly wrong for the Basque side.
Not even the return after injury last week of Imanol Harinordiquy could prevent Biarritz losing on the road to Bayonne. It’s difficult to see them breaking their losing habit against Perpignan, who come into this game on the back of a 20-16 victory at home over Toulouse.
Speaking of Guy Noves’ side… they play in the weekend’s other Top 14 eye-catcher when they face top-of-the-table Stade Francais in a match that has the potential to be a season’s classic.
The host’s outstanding form at Ernest Wallon – where they have picked up bonus-point wins in all four games – has masked the fact that this has been a pretty forgettable season for the 2011 and 2012 Top 14 champions, while Stade have apparently recovered from the travel-sickness that has plagued them for several seasons.
Toulouse should win. They have already destroyed likely play-off rivals Racing Metro and Castres at home. But born-again Stade have it in them to push the hosts all the way. For the first time at Ernest Wallon this season, home fans are the ones most likely to be praying for the 80-minute hooter to sound.
Reigning Top 14 champions Castres beat Racing Metro at home last week. If precedent means anything, that means CO will lose this week at Brive. Let’s look at the facts: Castres have yet to win away from ‘Fortress’ Pierre Antoine this season, and they have yet to string together a run of form.
Brive, meanwhile, haven’t lost at home, and last week duked out a 12-12 draw at Grenoble, spending much of the match a man down after Thomas Sanchou saw red in an opening period that is probably best described as ‘eventful’. The euphemism seems to cover a 40-minute period in which four yellow cards were issued as well as the red.
It all seems to indicate a home win, but Castres have played some breath-taking rugby at times this season. It’s only a matter of time before it all clicks. It could click this week – which would be bad news for Brive.
Oyonnax’s 25-22 victory over Toulon at Stade Charles Mathon last Saturday cemented their reputation as the Top 14 darlings of neutral rugby fans this season. With Clermont, Castres and Biarritz also under their belts, the big team from the little town in the shadow of the Jura Mountains fear no one.
Like so many other sides in the Top 14, however, they have yet to win on the road. Their hosts this Saturday, Montpellier, are likely to bring them crashing back down to earth with a high-scoring bump. Expect to see the Herault side’s scrum-half Jonathan Pelissie front and centre after his near-anonymous run-out at Stade Francais last weekend.
The fixture list also features the battle of the Top 14’s most disciplined side, Racing Metro, and its most unruly, Grenoble. Referees have had reason to wield a card in the direction of the hosts’ players just five times this season, but the visitors have had players carded 15 times in eight games.
The visitors will bring plenty of fight, but they will ultimately be found wanting against the ciel et bleu, who will not only out-discipline them, but Jonny Sexton will also punish every indiscretion.
Last week, 13th-placed Bayonne beat the only side below them in the Top 14, Biarritz. This week, they face Bordeaux, who are above them, in 12th, only on points difference. Raphael Ibanez’s side will start as favourites to win, but this is another match that will probably go to the wire.
Agree? Disagree? As ever, comments are always welcome… and do look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.